Last night I watched the first episode of Syfy's new horror anthology series Channel Zero: Candle Cove, and while it occasionally dragged in spots, director Craig Macneill (who helmed 2015's excellent budding-sociopath horror-thriller The Boy) managed to establish a quietly unnerving tone that feels unique to anything else on TV right now. Based on an internet “creepypasta” written by Kris Straub, the show created by Nick Antosca (Hannibal) is a little bit X-Files with more than a dash of Stephen King, shot through with Macneill's off-center sensibilities.
For those who aren't familiar with Channel Zero, Season 1 centers on child psychologist Mike Painter (Parks and Rec's Paul Schneider), who returns to his hometown nearly three decades after his twin brother and several other children were found murdered after watching a bizarre children's TV series entitled Candle Cove (for more specifics, you can read my explainer piece on the series here). It's an intriguing premise made even more so by the fact that, when prompted, Mike's mother (an excellent Fiona Shaw) maintains that Candle Cove was, at least from her perspective, nothing but a bunch of TV static.
The show begins on a very strong note, with a scene of Mike — dubbed “America's Child Psychologist” thanks to his regular media appearances — speaking with a Charlie Rose-esque TV host about his new book. It's a seemingly benign setup that gradually goes off the rails when the host pulls out a phone and puts the caller, a maniacally giggling child, on speaker. It's a terrific opening that establishes the show's muted, offbeat tone in a few graceful strokes and leads us directly into Mike's return to his hometown, where he links up with several childhood friends who also remember watching the title series — a show that, among other terrifying characters, featured a walking skeleton named Jawbone.
While Channel Zero follows in the anthology footsteps of FX's American Horror Story by focusing on a single storyline each season, the former is a decidedly more restrained effort, and I think a lot of that has to do with Macneill, who directed all six Season 1 episodes back-to-back. Based on his work here as well as The Boy, he excels at the kind of horror that you can't quite put your finger on but which simmers beneath every setup and at the edges of every frame. In Channel Zero specifically, this nicely comes through not only in the cinematography but the performance of Schneider, whose every smirk seems to hide a yawning, endless scream.
As with every work of art, there are a lot of debts owed here, from Stephen King's It (which similarly centers on a group of adults haunted by childhood terrors) to David Lynch and Mark Frost's soon-to-be-revived Twin Peaks, whose influence can be seen all over the stilted, quietly dreamlike opening scene described above. Perhaps the most mortifying single creation here is the Tooth-Child, a skin-crawling humanoid entity made up entirely of the teeth of murdered and/or abducted children who, at least based on the show's IMDB page, will factor into every single episode this season.
I'm going to keep tabs on Channel Zero: Candle Cove in the coming weeks and will continue to weigh in with my thoughts here. For now, I strongly recommend giving it a try. You can watch Episode 1 over at Syfy's official website if you missed last night's airing.